Yesterday I reentered the world of my regular responsibilities as a pastor and began a short series of sermons to reset our church priorities for the next phase of our life together as the people of Grace. It was good to back with my church family. I was grateful for the opportunities to worship with friends and family in different places over the last month, but there is no place like home when it comes to the gathered worship of God’s people. And there’s no place I’d rather preach than in my own pulpit.
I had several goals for redeeming the time that I took for my month-long sabbatical. By God’s grace, most of them were met. One of them was to disengage from social media. That meant no twitter and no Facebook (as well as no blogging). That discipline was particularly refreshing, though I was reminded of just how far social media has insinuated itself into our daily lives. Countless times I was engaged in conversation by friends and family as if I were aware of the latest online postings or latest viral issues on social media. I had to be brought up to speed time and again. So when I stumbled across Al Mohler’s
recent ancient (in Internet terms) commentary on Christian Leadership in the Digital Age I was much more receptive to its wisdom than I would have been even a month ago.
In addition to my social media fast, which was broken only when I could not resist the temptation of being called out about a silly football matter, I was able to get some focused reading and writing done as well as taking some time to rest and enjoy family. Oh, and I did get in one day of somewhat successful hunting. I may write about these things in a later post but today I simply want to comment on two important books and two important deaths.
Two of the books that I read in prepublication form during the month were released while I was away. I cannot too highly commend each of them. The Poverty of Nations: A Sustainable Solution by theologian Wayne Grudem and economist Barry Asmus is unlike any other I have ever read. Combining biblical wisdom (and discretion) with economic history and theory the authors argue persuasively that any nation can lift itself from poverty by pursuing a free market economy. The authors write not from some detached, indifferent perspective, but as Christians who recognize that loving one’s neighbor has macro as well as micro application. I recommend this book to every church, Christian and missionary organization that is involved in cross-cultural ministry.
The other book that I read in pdf form is David Murray’s Jesus on Every Page: 10 Simply Ways to Seek and Find Christ in the Old Testament. David brings to this task the heart of a pastor and the mind of a scholar. By tracing his own journey–his own Emmaus Road experience–he shows us not only the fact that Jesus is indeed the theme of the Old Testament but also how to read the Old Testament so as to recognize this. He is a safe guide in this exercise and my heart was repeatedly warmed by the gospel of grace revealed in the Old Testament as I read this book. This book can and should be placed in the hands of every believer so that he or she can be helpfully reminded that the whole Bible is a Christian book.
I found myself sobered yet rejoicing at the news of the death last month of two Christian giants who have influenced and challenged my life. Samuel Lamb, a world-renown leader in the Chinese underground church, was the first Christian I ever met who experienced years of imprisonment and torture for his faith. I was profoundly impacted when, as a young pastor, I went to visit his house church on a Thursday night. We got there 45 minutes early for the service and discovered that we were already nearly an hour late. Fives times per week believers and seekers would cram into the 3 levels of his home to hear God’s Word preached. They typically arrived an hour and a half early so that they could spend time praying and singing before the worship service began. When it was made known that 9 pastors from America were present, we were ushered to the main floor about 15 feet from the lectern from which he preached. We sat on 2×6 boards that rested on concrete blocks and were squeezed uncomfortably close together. Over 500 people crammed into his house 5 times each week to experience this–most relegated to first or third floors where they participated by remote video.
I don’t remember the details of Pastor Lamb’s sermon, though, as it was interpreted quietly in my ear I do remember thinking that his exegesis was flawed and his exposition highly speculative (it centered on identifying the beast in Revelation). Because I had read his story shortly before this, my judgmental spirit was somewhat tempered. When he gave us an hour to visit with him after the service, I remember feeling unworthy to tie his shoes. He bore, literally, the marks of the Lord Jesus on his body. I wept quietly as he recounted his twenty years of imprisonment, deprivation and torture for the gospel. I’ll never forget his response to one of our questions seeking insight into persecution and suffering for the gospel. “in America,” he said, “the church has experienced prosperity and is growing weaker. In China, the church has experienced persecution and growing stronger. Persecution is much better than prosperity.”
God used Samuel Lamb to help me start learning more profoundly than before that a man’s experience can be far greater than his theology and that theological precision, though vital, is insufficient to a life of costly discipleship. I am thankful to have met him.
The night before I left for my Sabbatical I was informed via email that Richard Denham had left the land of the dying to enter the land of the living. I wept. Rich became a fast friend after we met in the mid 1980s. He attended a Founders Conference to see if what he had heard was really true–were there really Southern Baptists(!) who believed the doctrines of grace and saw their expansive implications for life and ministry? He was encouraged by those days of fellowship and teaching. Rich left the United States shortly after his graduation from Bob Jones University, taking his new bride to the jungles of the Amazon in Brazil for the purpose of evangelizing Brazilians who had never heard the gospel. He purchased a small boat and motor and he and Pearl set off down that massive river, stopping at villages along the way, establishing churches wherever disciples of Jesus were made. Later, he moved his work to to the more populated regions of Brazil and established Editora Fiel as a publishing house and ministry to the Portuguese speaking world. The list of titles that Fiel has published reads like a most-cherished-books list reformed and evangelical works.
In addition to publishing, Rich began an annual Fiel Pastors and Church Leaders conference that has grown to gathering more than a thousand attenders year. He also started a Fiel Youth Conference and “Adopt-a-Pastor” ministry that allows churches in the US and other places to provide good books and conference registration for pastors and wives to the annual conference. Rich was nothing if not an entrepreneur. He started numerous businesses, bought and sold real estate, cast big visions and willingly altered those visions all for the sake of Christ’s kingdom. Had he not been a missionary I am convinced he would have been a millionaire many times over. He had an indomitable spirit. I’ve had the privilege of preaching at several Fiel conferences over the years and have led our church to adopt several pastors along the way. It has been amazing to watch the great force for God’s truth that Rich Denham embodied to his dying days.
The last time I saw him was July 28, 2011. Friends who had invited me to preach at a pastors conference in a church that Rich planted many years ago provided and opportunity for me to go see him. He was frail even then. Unable to speak clearly. Eyesight nearly gone. Not able to walk. Yet, when he recognized me his face lit up and we were able to talk about the things of God for twenty minutes. I understood enough to know that his mind was still on the expansion of the work of the Kingdom, both in Brazil and the USA. When I left that meeting with his son, Rick, I felt sure it would be the last time I would see him on this side of eternity. For more than sixty years Rich and Pearl labored in Brazil. Through a generation of faithful pastors and leaders that he discipled and through the distribution of millions of copies of books that he published, that work continues today. I thank God for his friendship and influence in my life.